Once More Unto The Breach
by Jeremy Miller
"Do not attempt the Black Hole descent," reads a sign posted behind bullet-riddled Plexiglas. The warning, erected by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the San Juan County sheriff's office, displays photos of a gothic canyon choked with mud, tree limbs and logs. In heated conversation with himself, guidebook author and canyon rat Michael Kelsey paces in front of the sign, which stands in a turnout near the Lake Powell supply depot of Hite, Utah.
The "Black Hole" is a narrow gorge in the middle section of White Canyon, which runs for about 50 miles from the foot of the Abajo Mountains, near Blanding, to Glen Canyon. At its deepest section, the Black Hole is just a few feet wide and impervious to the sun. The crux involves swimming 1,000 feet through narrow sandstone passageways in water that rarely exceeds 55 degrees Fahrenheit. And now, it seems, there is the matter of an impassible clutter of driftwood.
"What a bunch of shit," says Kelsey, swatting wildly at gnats. The 67-year-old wears a bleached white hat draped with red fabric and a faded logo that reads, improbably, ROBO HACKER. Behind bargain-bin eyeglasses, his eyes are an intense blue, set above a pointed chin fringed with gray stubble. "They're lying, trying to scare people off." At one point he rears back and I think he's going to heave a can of chicken, intended for tonight's dinner, directly at the Plexiglas sign.
Six years ago, a flash flood filled the canyon's narrowest sections with debris and made safe passage impossible. The warning was posted to discourage people from entering one of the most beautiful -- and potentially treacherous -- of Utah's slot canyons. But Kelsey, who is credited with naming the Black Hole back in the 1980s, has inside information. He explains that a more recent flash flood, in 2006, cleared the debris from the gorge.
It's clear that Kelsey feels he has a job to do here, a bit of truth-telling on behalf of the hiking public. That's been his self-imposed mission for the last 40 years. He began writing guidebooks in the early 1970s as a hitchhiking world traveler. Of his 16 self-published guidebooks, half are devoted to canyon country. The most popular, Canyon Hiking Guide to the Colorado Plateau, has sold 50,000 copies since it was first released in the mid-'80s, arming hundreds of hikers, from novices to experienced backcountry trekkers, with information about scenic and potentially challenging routes through canyon country. To his adherents, Kelsey is an authority and a faithful (if not always 100 percent accurate) guide. But to critics, he is a purveyor of half-truths and a revealer of precious secrets -- selling detailed directions to beloved locations often considered too delicate, remote or dangerous for the average hiker.
Like many visitors to the Colorado Plateau's backcountry, I have used, even relied on, Kelsey's books. They evoke all the joy and excitement I feel at the start of each new canyon trip. Perhaps this is why I have come to relish his books as a distinct, off-kilter literary genre, with their incantatory incorporation of the third person ("The author drank it, and lives on, but there are some wild cattle and beaver in the drainage …"), their liberal use of exclamation points ("He hardly got any fotos!"), and their disarming colloquialisms ("shorties are as useless as tits on a boar").
But like many of Kelsey's readers, I've often found myself frustrated by my experiences in the field. The casual route descriptions often lack explicit cautionary language -- the kind found, for example, in the popular Colorado mountaineering guides of Gerry Roach. ("The introduction is over and the challenge looms overhead.") Kelsey can be vague; sometimes he includes routes that he has not fully completed, and his estimated hike times can verge on the superhuman. "Mr. Kelsey appears to be a hiker who is in great shape," says Tom Heinlein, field manager of the Monticello BLM office. "But the times in his guides are often a little bit suspect."
Kelsey knows the reactions his name can provoke among Utah's backcountry set. He seems to take a pirate's pride in the fact that over the years, several of southern Utah's national parks -- including Zion and Canyonlands -- have pulled his titles from visitor center shelves. "The parks want to have editorial control of what appears in the guidebooks they sell," he said. "I'm not about to agree to that. My books are kind of like the unauthorized, unsanitized versions."
My own adventures with Kelsey's guides are punctuated by a single ill-fated trip 16 years ago. As freshmen at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo., two friends and I followed Kelsey's descriptions into a rugged canyon near Green River called the Lower Black Box. We entered the main gorge and found the early-October flow of the San Rafael River cold and swift. The canyon steadily grew narrower and deeper, and soon we emerged in a section jammed with floating logs and large chokestones covered in slippery mud. In spite of 90-degree temperatures, our good physical condition and handy inner tubes, we were no match for the chilling combination of water and shadow.
Halfway through, I began slurring my words and shivering violently. We found a sandbar, and I put on my long pants and draped a towel over my shoulders for warmth. The shivering did not stop. A streak of sun illuminated what appeared to be a possible exit route. We cursed Michael Kelsey and started up.
After a half-hour of tense climbing, we reached the top and the warmth of the rim and discussed what had gone wrong -- which is to say, we deconstructed the book. Where was the information about the floating logs? The warnings of hypothermia? The caution about the current that held you like a vise against the massive stones? If the sky had rained frogs, or even just rain, we'd have blamed Kelsey for that, too.
I realize now that we had entered the Lower Black Box ignoring clear signs of danger -- too late in the year, too much water -- and lacking a clear understanding of the inherent risks. But even now, it is difficult to blame all our problems on our own poor judgment. Over the years, as canyoneering has becoming increasingly popular, our misadventures have been repeated by dozens of others. These stories carry a typical refrain: inexperienced hikers led astray by Kelsey's route descriptions.
I have watched most of this from afar. For the better part of the last decade, the concrete and steel canyons of New York City have been morose surrogates for the sandstone gorges of southern Utah. Yet I find myself pulling Kelsey's guides from my shelves as frequently as ever. At a certain level, they offer a visceral link to landscapes deeply etched in the soft stone of my memory. But it's more than that: Unlike any other guidebooks I have encountered, Kelsey's books exude a strange -- almost radioactive -- motive force; they quite simply make me want to "go." My desire to better understand their seductive power has become something of a subconscious itch. Perhaps this is why, this past June -- disregarding all posted warnings -- I decided to enter another one of Utah's deep, dark, watery places -- this time in the company of Michael Kelsey himself.
I crawl from my tent at 7 a.m. The sun zaps my face as I boil water for coffee. Kelsey is already awake, sitting quietly on the tailgate of his Jeep Patriot, which he has ingeniously transformed into a camper and support vehicle. Every inch of free space in the truck is stuffed with gear -- climbing rope, water jugs, sunscreen, daypacks, maps, sleeping bags, tattered copies of his various books. He has removed the passenger seat and rear seat and fitted it with a plywood platform and a small mattress. He prefers the truck to a tent, he says, because of his grueling schedule -- a week on the trail followed by a week at home in which he madly transcribes the handwritten notes from his backcountry rounds.
Kelsey relays the weather forecast: clear and hot, ideal for a descent into the Black Hole. He laces up a pair of running shoes, his trademark desert footwear, which he buys used a size too large and stuffs with thick insoles for greater shock absorption. We are in no hurry. Best, he says, to let the air warm before immersing ourselves in the cold water in the depths of the canyon.
My decision to defy the bullet-riddled warning at the edge of White Canyon is not entirely blind. My knuckles and shins bear fresh scrapes from the "warm-up" hike we'd taken the previous day through Blue John Canyon, a tangle of beautiful, challenging slots near Hanksville. As we clambered, crawled and stemmed through Blue John, I looked on in awe as the near-septuagenarian negotiated chimneys and massive chokestones with Spider-Man-style acumen. The Blue John complex is perhaps best known as the place where Colorado hiker Aron Ralston was trapped for five grueling days in May 2003. To escape, Ralston had to amputate his lower right arm, which had been pinned under an 800-pound boulder. Kelsey says he was contacted recently by Hollywood filmmakers working on a movie about Ralston's ordeal. I'm not surprised when Kelsey tells me that the filmmakers said that Ralston was toting a copy of his canyon guide.
Later that evening, we speak about the 40 years of travel and monastic penny-pinching that have made Kelsey's lifestyle possible: buying used clothes at thrift stores, subsisting mostly on rice and vegetables, driving 45 mph on desert highways in un-air conditioned vehicles to save gas, working out of the basement of his parents' home in Provo, and -- most of all -- carefully avoiding marriage. "I'm married to this," he says, sweeping a hand across a vertical panorama of sandstone walls.
He describes his childhood in the Uinta Basin. Kelsey's father lived well into his 90s and scratched out a living as an itinerant lumberjack and gilsonite miner. The family moved to Provo in the mid-'50s, and Kelsey has remained there ever since. He severed his ties with the Mormon Church at the age of 17 after a class discussion about the lack of divine intervention during the group's expulsion from Missouri, the prophesied Garden of Eden. "I walked over to the seminary the next day and turned in my card. They call that apostasy," he says. "I guess that makes me an apostate." Kelsey says he sees religion as a great destabilizing force worldwide and plans to write a book on what he sees as the United States' troubled relationship with Israel. (I tell him that if he thinks his critics are vocal now, he's seen nothing yet. "I'll write that when I can't walk anymore," he replies.)
He's got enough writing projects to keep him busy for now. He's got books "laying around," he says in a rare moment of ennui, older editions that need to be updated, including his first published guide, the Climber's and Hiker's Guide to the World's Mountains and Volcanos (a 1,200-plus page tome covering hundreds of peaks from the Tetons to the Hindu Kush) and his more local Hiking Guide to the San Rafael Swell. "The San Rafael guide needs to be revamped and re-photographed," he says with a hint of despair. "Maybe in the next year or two if I can get to it."
After a few final preparations, we set out for the trailhead. Kelsey moves nimbly down the steep, loose terrain. The trail offers a panorama of the aptly named White Canyon, cut into cream-colored sandstone. We pass another warning sign, a facsimile of the one posted at the trailhead -- also duly ignored -- and work our way to the bottom. Kelsey maintains a swift but sub-Olympian clip, and in a half-hour we catch up with another group as they traverse a stretch strewn with massive boulders. Though currently water-free, the area is littered with logs, root snags, tires and heaps of garbage.
"This has changed!" Kelsey declaims, his voice echoing from the canyon walls. At each new obstacle he pulls a small pad from a Ziploc bag tucked into his back pocket. Those three words become a sort of mantra during our two days of hiking. Geologic time, we think, occurs over a period too vast and imperceptibly slow for human perception. And yet, along the canyon floor, a sharp eye can spot the water-wrought changes from season to season. ("Seeing a flash flood catches God red-handed," Colorado author and flood-chaser Craig Childs once wrote.) Indeed, these beautiful and ephemeral places defy description in even the most thorough of guidebooks.
No place is the mantra more disconcerting, however, than the spot where White Canyon contracts into the cave-like fissure of the Black Hole itself. "This is where we go in, but, man, this has changed. Last time I was here, I jumped over to that other side," he says, pointing to a seven- or eight-foot gap. On the other side is a steep slab of sandstone. A jump looks like a risky proposition. Fortunately, a bit more scouting reveals a tight crack that drops us into a dark, water-filled pocket.
The next defile is even narrower and the scant light that penetrates diffuses off the undulating walls. A fraying length of rope hangs into the void with knots down its length. Kelsey drops into the pool first, levering awkwardly away from the rock face. I do the same, swinging out then penduluming back, steadying my body against the rock with my feet.
Then I let go.
Even in my wetsuit, the water is ice-cold and I grope for the wall ahead, which is the sooty hue of New York City subway tunnels. I hoist myself up into a small alcove. The only escape is to swim through a tight V-shaped void between the limbs of a large log that has become wedged vertically into a narrow gap.
I sidestroke out into the space and Kelsey calls out for me to go slow, then to stop. He is blipping off dozens of pictures with his digital camera. Voices of the team coming up behind us echo off the walls like firecrackers tossed into a storm drain. As I tread water, the layer of water under my suit warms from frigid to refreshing.
From here, the Black Hole presents plenty of minor and picturesque challenges. We squeeze through constrictions, climb around large rocks and swim through deep pools. But the difficulties are completely overshadowed by the fun. Kelsey's half-dozen trips to the Black Hole have borne out something that now seems obvious: A good weather forecast and a wetsuit are key to enjoying this adventure. We are assuredly safer for his experience.
There will, of course, in years to come, be more flash floods, more detritus washed into the gorge. Formerly dry holes will fill with water overnight. Torrents will scrape, scour and rearrange. New obstacles will emerge. Most of those who enter prepared will make it through unscathed. But as long as hikers pass this way, there will be accidents, perhaps even deaths. The Black Hole will continue to change -- that is the only certainty.
The night before, as we discussed accusations of inaccuracy in his Canyon guides, Kelsey said he has frequently been made a scapegoat for poor preparation and lapses in judgment. He believes his detractors are often motivated by something more than considerations of accuracy: "Many of my critics are jealous because I have found a way to make my hobby into a career." He says this without a trace of irony.
Yet Kelsey insists that he's always been receptive to fair criticism. Besides, his guidebooks are not intended as gospel. Like the canyons themselves, the books continue to evolve. "Each time someone goes out and has a problem, it makes me more diligent. Just look at the differences between my first books and the latest editions," he says. "You get better with time."
And what of the criticism leveled by many canyon advocates, including Monticello-based writer Jim Stiles, who assert that Kelsey has profited by selling out the wilderness -- by advertising places that should remain permanently off the radar of the general hiking public? "I understand where Stiles is coming from. He likes to make his own trail. He doesn't want to see any footprints in front of him. That's fine. I'm like that, too," says Kelsey. "But people are going to go whether I write it down or not. At least my books try to explain to people how to visit these places safely."
Then, in a long-anticipated moment of catharsis, I relay my harrowing experiences 16 years ago in the Lower Black Box. As I speak, Kelsey stares back in the moonlight, his face unmoving, as if etched in stone. The response is pitch-perfect Kelsey. "October is a little late to attempt the hike without a wetsuit," he replies. "Last time I was there, there was no flowing water at all. It was in the middle of the drought. Everything changes all the time."
As abruptly as the Black Hole had constricted, it opens up. Swimming gives way to a slog through sugary sand in the canyon bottom. The sun has crested the rim and beats down on our shoulders. We stop on a sandbar and peel off wetsuits. "We're not far off now," Kelsey says, striding off rapidly after tucking his suit away. We soon arrive at a small cairn marking a faint footpath leading up through ragged cliffs above.
We clamber up along a series of rocky terraces toward the rim. Kelsey's stride is longer now and I struggle to keep pace. At an outcrop with a yawning panorama of the canyon, he stops to take some notes and let me catch up. "1:30," he says. As we make the final push over a series of small, red rises, motorbikes groan along Highway 95 and windshields glint like jewels in the desert sun. The inside of my mouth feels as if it is lined with tissue paper. At the parking lot, Kelsey looks at his watch again. "Four and a half hours," he says, recording the time in his logbook, which, I imagine, will become memorialized in the "author's experience" section of his next edition.
On the plane ride back to New York the next day, I reach into my bag to retrieve the latest version of Kelsey's technical canyoneering guide, which he gave me as a gift. A pretty young woman sitting next to me sees my scraped knuckles and forearms and asks if I've been in a fight. I tell her, "No, just out walking." I tap Kelsey's picture on the cover -- a clever double exposure with two images of the author rappelling down a single rope. She nods and smiles, polite but mildly confused. Then she turns back to her magazine.
As I revisit the section on White Canyon, I find that our effort is significant -- at least in the circumscribed world of Kelsey's accomplishments. We'd beaten his previous "best" time through the Black Hole by an hour. I smile and tuck the book away and feel no compulsion to open it for the rest of the flight home.
Name Michael Kelsey
Job Guidebook author
Favorite desert bathing hole Hog Canyon Springs Rest Area
Favorite spot for a post-canyon ice cream cone Blondie's, Hanksville
Number of guidebooks published 16
Pairs of running shoes worn through in an average hiking season 9
He says "Put some money into wider trails, better trails, bigger trailheads. Create better facilities to handle more people. Wilderness areas are set up to keep motor vehicles out, not people."
Jeremy Miller writes about the West from his home in the East, outside of New York City. He was a 2009-2010 Middlebury Fellow in Environmental Journalism. His last story for High Country News, “Mountains of Mercury” (hcn.org/issues/42.1/mountains-of-mercury), was about mercury pollution from cement plants. He is currently at work on a book about the California oil industry.
This story was funded by a grant from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.